My Father Taught Me To Kill The Sunflower: The American Astronaut (2001)

I am always surprised what I am able to dig up on Netflix in regards to independently produced cinema, it often ranges from the decidedly unwatchable The Pleasure of Being Robbed to the excellent and extremely low-budget Lo.  Of course, indie films are a hit or miss by their very existence alone and it is more so the case when the indie film attempts to exist within the space of a genre. The American Astronaut, a heavily experimental and noticeably independent film manages to move freely between the genres of the western (thus explaining its inclusion this month), the space travel film and even a bit of a musical as well, without ever seeming awkward or ill-advised.  Indeed, if I were to be shown this film without any explanation or context, I would be willing to posit that it was a newly discovered early work by either David Lynch or Guy Maddin, or, at the very least, somebody who is heavily and properly influenced by the aforementioned filmmakers.  What viewers are provided with The American Astronaut is nothing short of exceptional, between a maddening vision of a desolate and decidedly masculine future and the dreary black and white cinematography that allows for the darkness that clearly seems to be consuming the characters to stretch out and, at the very least, graze the eyes of those viewing this film.  It sticks to a vision and while it travels between locales at no point does the intensely dark, and at times comedic nature of the narrative world crack even in its most absurd and unusual moments.  What writer/director/actor Cory McAbee offers in his film is a prophetic, chiaroscuro vision of all that could go wrong with the future, should individuals not be willing to accept their absurd reservations in regards to socially liberal frameworks or prudish assumptions about the nature of sexuality and expressions of the self which are non-normative.  Each character exists in the space of The American Astronaut to be deconstructed, dismissed and ultimately reconsidered within a context of some "future" world which has institutionalized them to be disconnected, but as the film manages to cleverly suggest, perhaps this future is far less a distant even than a viewer might like to assume.

The American Astronaut centers on the travels of one Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee) a sort of space bounty shipper, willing to move about the various planets transferring goods, both living and non, as a means to keep himself financially secure.  Viewers are introduced to Curtis as he is delivering a cat to a seedy space bar, where he meets up with his former dance partner The Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor) who is purportedly in possession of a "real life girl" one that he hopes to trade a duplicitous overseer of a factory planet for a young man whose claim to intergalactic fame is that he had the great fortune of seeing a woman's breast.  It is explained that this young man will be then traded to the women of the planet venus to be used as their veritable sexual toy to procreate on the planet in return for their former single male figure who has died and needs to be returned to his family.  Given this seemingly absurd set of requests, Curtis is completely willing to engage with the actions, even seeming to embrace the task at hand, if only to get away from a planet that seems to take joy in capturing pictures of the traveller using the restroom.  Along the way Curtis continually runs into his nemesis the maniacal and death obsessed Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto) who appears quite focused on eventually killing Curtis because it is his "birthday."  Nonetheless, Curtis undertakes his missions with relative success, even helping to teach The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast (Greg Russell Cook) about living outside of his worker colony, engaging with him as though he is to be a son that will take on his job after his inevitable passing.  Along the way, the two person crew stops off in a floating barn and find themselves in contact with 1800's Nevada silver miners who have inexplicably existed in a floating space void and have given birth to a child known only as Body Suit (James Ransome) who they hope will be allowed to venture along the way with Curtis.  Curtis agrees in exchange for Body Suit's supply of cigarettes and chocolate.  Upon their arrival to Venus, Hess awaits Curtis now hoping instead to kill The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast, but realizing his tricks and having created a son out of him, Curtis tricks the women into believing that Body Suit is indeed their new male, abandoning him on the planet and fleeing from an infuriated Hess.

Sure that description makes it seem as though The American Astronaut is the farthest thing possible from a western, but this is simply not the case, especially considering that the travel takes on a sort of frontier element about it, not to mention many of the locations hearken back to the names and imagery of the old west, the only difference being that they exist in the floating world of outer space, and the clothing on the characters, while almost steampunk in its composition certainly embraces the genre as well.  I do not want to spend the whole time defending its westernness, but instead want to mention how insanely masculine this film is, not in a misogynist sense, but in a clearly deconstructionist one, McAbee is clearly playing with the nature of male interactions in a world that is assumedly void of female figures.  While it may play far too heavily into heteronormativity, The American Astronaut does want viewers to consider how stupid it is to believe that a idealized frontier that is entirely composed of patriarchal figures really proves to be on paper.  While Curtis is a decidedly rational individual, he also seems highly preoccupied with consummating a relationship with a woman, much as his pal The Blueberry Pirate and certainly the owner of the factory planet prove to be as well.  Hell, even a rejection of masculine desire in the context of The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast is entrenched within his own embodiment of a masculine classical Greek figure, not a movement towards any embracing of the femininity.  Body Suit, of course, represents the most heightened of this lack of a female presence, indeed becoming frail and hermit like as a result, as opposed to be hyper-masculine as those who embrace maleness seem to assume would be the case with an all male commune or environment.  Of course, the all female colony on Venus is no better, in its misguided composition, being shown as feverish and foolish, again rejecting any notions of segregation or separation within a new space.  Sure The American Astronaut is a space western, but this filmic choice, helps viewers transcend a restrictive notion of gender politics, only to realizes that a separation is as foolish as an assumption that all is inherently equal all the time.

Key Scene:  The talk with the man in the barn is creepy and certainly one of the more hauntingly oeneiric portions of the film.

Netflix Watch Instantly...do it now, there is a high chance that it will not stay there forever.

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